Most of what we hear about the debate on immigration reform tends to dwell on the negative, with emphasis on people in the U.S. illegally taking advantage of what this country has to offer or taking jobs away from deserving American born citizens.
While we pay lip service to the fact that the U.S. is really a nation of immigrants, we don’t always appreciate what a brilliant tapestry we have created here and why our American melting pot is the envy of so many peoples around the world.
One of the positive ways our country recognizes the vital and diverse contributions of the immigrant traditions brought to our shores is the annual ceremonies in the Washington, D.C. area recognizing the contributions of master folk artists whose sharing of their native culture enriches our society.
Next week the National Endowment for the Arts will honor Seamus Connolly, an Irish fiddler, for his massive efforts in passing on traditional Irish music to his American audiences and students.
For the 12th time, an Irish traditional musician or dancer has been selected for one of the National Heritage Fellowships. Not only are they lionized as national folk treasures, but they also garner a significant financial stipend of $25,000 if the federal sequesters doesn’t bite into it.
Connolly, a native of Killaloe, Co. Clare, has been a monumental force for traditional music ever since arriving in Boston for good back in 1976 after his first foray to America on a Comhaltas tour in 1972.
He had already distinguished himself in Ireland as an All-Ireland fiddle champion as well as the prestigious Fiddler of Dooney in Ireland. He also recorded a very significant CD with the late Paddy O’Brien, the pre-eminent box player from Co. Tipperary called The Banks of the Shannon.
Recruited by Larry Reynolds to start teaching music in Boston, he also anchored music sessions for years in Beantown and was a member of the Massachusetts State Senate staff of Billy Bulger, whose son Brendan became an All-Ireland champion under Connolly’s tutelage. His prowess was recognized by the National Council for the Traditional Arts and he was selected as the Irish fiddle master on several nationwide tours.
In the early nineties, with the encouragement of Dr. Micheal O’Suilleabhain, who did a sabbatical year at Boston College, Connolly moved into the orbit of the Irish “Harvard” University which was bolstering its Irish Studies program and, in particular, its Irish music department which recruited Connolly to its staff.
He developed Boston College’s Gaelic roots programming into one of the finest and most respected Celtic music summer schools for eight years, and continued on as the Sullivan Artist in Residence running smaller events throughout the year, a position he still enjoys from his home now in North Yarmouth, Maine.
While resident in the U.S. Connolly has recorded four CDs including two solo ones, Notes From My Mind and Here and There, along with highly regarded recordings with other masters of the genre in America.
Warming Up was recorded with the late Jack Coen (also a National Heritage Fellow), Martin Mulhaire and Felix Dolan, and The Boston Edge with Joe Derrane and the late John McGann. Connolly is currently working on an epic music book of over 300 Irish tunes acquired over his long and illustrious career, including newly composed tunes and rarely recorded ones.
Next week will be a busy one for Connolly as the awards ceremony bestowing the National Heritage Fellowships takes place on Wednesday, September 25 at 5 p.m. in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress and this is open to the public. The following evening the Embassy of Ireland and new Ambassador Anne Anderson will host an invitation only reception saluting their native son Connolly.
On Friday the 27th at 8 p.m. the annual concert featuring some of the nine awardees emceed by NPR radio presenter Nick Spitzer will take place at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium. This concert is free and tickets are availablewww.lisner.org, or visit http://www.nea.gov/honors/heritage/ for more details on the concert and other events surrounding the ceremonies. At the concert itself, Connolly will be performing with a veteran crew of Billy McComiskey, Jimmy Noonan, Zan McLeod and step dancer Kevin Doyle.
The concert will also be live-streamed at arts.gov at 8 p.m. and it will be archived there afterwards. This is an excellent opportunity to view the diversity and breadth of multicultural contributions these honors signify every year in the field of the traditional arts.
Exposure to the great multicultural wealth in our country is given too little attention in our national media, with way too much attention devoted to “reality shows” and gimmicky competitions driven by crass commercialism.
Meanwhile, meaningful programs developed by the National Endowment for the Arts are under siege and subject to the wrath of budget-cutters in Congress who see little value in cultural funding like this for the arts and arts education and promotion. Our national treasures are to be recognized for the valuable contributions they make to America, and those are priceless.